My family used to drive everywhere like there were no other modes of transportation.
When my siblings and I went to boarding school in Quebec, Canada, we stuffed the back of our car with suitcases and drove up from our home in Maryland semester after semester. When I went to college in Boston, we drove. When my brother went to college in Nashville, we drove. When my sister went to college in New York, we drove. When I attended a summer clowning course at a physical theatre school in Blue Lake, California, my family drove across the country to drop me off.
A college friend of mine once asked me, half mockingly, “Your family drove up from where? Why didn’t you just fly?” That was the first time it occurred to me that flying from DC to Boston would have been a lot more convenient. All those years, we drove on, blind to the concept of domestic air travel.
My late father could be frustratingly thrifty. He was a man of long-term plans. He married for the second time in his late 50s and went on to have three children with my mother, a woman 22 years his junior. But looking back now, he was pretty skilled at enjoying life.
The trips from Maryland down to Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida in the late 80s and early 90s were mainly for my parents’ real estate investments. But they weren’t just closing deals while we kids writhed with boredom during meetings conducted in English (a language the three of us barely understood at the time). Sometimes we got dropped off at the nearest playground with my sister’s nanny. Along the way, we took tours of historical houses, perused antique stores, bought box-loads of second-hand books, and, always to my father’s chagrin, shopped at factory outlets. One year, we continued on an epic adventure to the Grand Canyon. An undertaking that almost spelled the end for our trusty Volvo.
Road trips weren’t confined to summer vacations in the US. We went on many trips around Thailand with my father’s university friends and the lawyers and staff at his law firm who occasionally brought their families along. Not only that, we used to have live-in maids, gardeners, and drivers. They, too, often made up part of the caravan.
While road trips in Thailand often involved one boring temple visit after another in the blistering heat, the ones in the US meant novelty. I used to associate everything American with wealth and abundance. Everything was so clean and efficient. The grocery checkout lines were fast. They started using the code-scanning technology way before Thailand did. Drivers stopped to let pedestrians cross the streets. Everything was so different, so modern, so…civilized.
I remember watching a black-and-white movie with my father, and there was a scene in which a pauper was cutting a slice of cheese for his child. I pointed out to my father, impressed, “Even a poor man there could eat cheese!” Cheese was of course a luxury in Thailand, still is. My father chuckled a bit uncomfortably and said, “It’s very hard cheese.”
So even the chain restaurants, with their endless buffets, swift services, large plates and elephantine portions, were special and exotic to me.
I loved Shoney’s for its soups and blue cheese dressing—the only thing that made salad tolerable for me as a child. But the best part of all was the free lollipops in the bowl held by the cardboard-cutout Shoney’s Bear. I felt the restaurant understood and respected kids like me. And nobody respected kids in Thailand.
Waffle House and Cracker Barrel were our go-to breakfast places. I didn’t like American breakfast that much growing up. It was always too much too soon (we were always forced to start the day early). And nothing seemed capable of curing the blandness of eggs. But I loved Cracker Barrel’s apple cider and always ordered it to go with my breakfast. It was the only thing I never had trouble finishing.
I also enjoyed the restaurant’s country décor and gift shop. My parents loved to buy magnets, signs, and anything that came emblazoned with senior-citizen jokes. But it was my father who decided to boycott Cracker Barrel when he heard about their homophobic hiring policy. He could be a very traditional man, my father, but sometimes he was cool like that.
As breakfast was not my thing, I didn’t exactly light up whenever our car turned into Waffle House. I don’t think I ever ordered waffles there. But I was impressed by how fast they churned out the food. You could see the waitresses yelling out orders to the cooks—all men, I believe—who were too busy at the grill to look up. I always wondered how they kept all the orders straight, how they remembered everything. I loved the whole vibe of the place, too. I thought those waitresses were so cool, yelling out orders to the men like that.
I’ve always had great admiration for American waitresses. Growing up, I saw many waitresses and few waiters. They were fast and tough. I loved their no-nonsense attitude, the way they carried several large plates in one hand, the sweetness and warmth underneath it all, especially to us children.
We didn’t go to Golden Corral that often, but I will never forget our first time there. I ate like a starving lion. I can still remember how I couldn’t get enough of their honey butter. For a long time after that, I thought it was the best dinner I had ever had and Golden Corral the best restaurant in the world.
Chain restaurants were for breakfast and dinner. We picnicked for lunch.
When we were still studying in Thailand, we would go to the US during the summer break in March and April. The weather down south was perfect for outdoor dining—at interstate rest areas. Among the suitcases in our Volvo, we squeezed in a rice cooker, a big Tupperware filled with my mother’s adobo, which we sometimes had for dinner in the hotel room (according to my mother’s memory), a smaller one for my father’s special salad dressing that he loved to eat with endives, jars of pickles and olives, cans of tuna and sardines, crackers, cheeses (especially blue cheese). We ate using plastic cutleries and paper plates. My father’s Swiss Army knife, which our family called meed wisade (Thai for “magic knife”), always came in handy.
When the Asian economic crisis hit in 1997, my father sold all our properties in the states south of Maryland so that we could still go to school abroad. From then on, we drove mostly northward, towards schools. And as we grew older, the American chain restaurants lost their novelty. Friendly’s and Applebee’s were something convenient to go to, not something to get wide-eyed over. Our picnic ritual, too, faded away. One by one, my siblings and I started working. Weeks-long road trips became impossible.
But for a good while, that was how we rolled.
If you want to know more about how Waffle House operates, check out this fun Bon Appétit article, in which the magazine’s restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton worked a 24-hour shift at his favorite restaurant. The interview with him on the Bon Appétit Foodcast about his experience there was also great.